The April 2012 South Korean National Assembly Elections: A Window to South Korea’s Political Future

Current Issues in U.S.-ROK Relations

April 09, 2012


2012 is a year of elections in the Republic of Korea (ROK). National assembly elections, which occur every four years, and the presidential elections, which occur every five years, will both be held this year. This convergence of presidential and legislative elections occurs only once every twenty years, giving added significance to the general elections on April 11. The vote will determine three hundred members of the national assembly and will shape the playing field for South Korea's presidential elections on December 19. The result of the legislative elections will influence Korea's future direction as well as the future of U.S.-South Korea relations.

Major Parties and the Anticonservative Alignment

Ma Sang-yoon

Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Catholic University of Korea

Two major parties are competing in the national assembly elections: the Saenuri Party and the Democratic United Party (DUP). Saenuri is the new name of the conservative Grand National Party, which desperately wanted to change its public image and broaden its support base. The center-left DUP is a newly established party, which in December 2011 recreated a liberal coalition by merging the Democratic Party (DP), a group of former supporters of late president Roh Moo-hyun, and some activists from the Korean Trade Union. Despite this change in name and the reestablishment of a liberal alliance, the basic structure of political competition between the ruling and opposition parties remains unchanged.

The DUP has focused its campaign on highlighting policy failures and criticizing the wrongdoings of the Lee government.

A factor that should be watched closely is the role and influence of the minor, left-oriented United Progressive Party (UPP). It has aligned with the DUP to establish an anticonservative force. By agreeing to nominate only one candidate of either party in each of the sixty-four electoral districts, the two parties are guarding against a split liberal vote, thereby increasing the likelihood of success against the conservative ruling Saenuri Party. This partnership, however, has empowered the UPP to exercise influence beyond the weight of its minor-party status and has shifted the DUP and the overall liberal platform more to the left.

Voter Issues and Political Strategies

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Elections and Voting

The national assembly elections will be contested primarily over minsaeng (people's lives) issues. Despite Korea's gross national income growth of 3.5 percent last year, rising commodity prices, high education and housing costs, a difficult employment situation, and a weak social safety net are primary sources of South Korean public concern.

While President Lee Myung-bak may not be responsible for all these difficulties, his approval rating is low and he is likely to stay unpopular. Looking to encourage and exploit unhappiness with President Lee, the DUP has focused its campaign on highlighting policy failures and criticizing the wrongdoings of the Lee government. Meanwhile, the Saenuri Party has tried to disassociate itself from the Lee administration and the party's static, change-averse, and outdated image. In addition to adopting its new name, the Saenuri Party did not nominate approximately 30 percent of its current national assembly representation, many of whom the public regards as tainted or old-fashioned. Furthermore, the Saenuri Party is actively responding to public demands by making campaign pledges to improve and expand the welfare system.

A Close Win for an Aligned But Divided Left

Although it is difficult to discern which of the two major parties is currently more successful in appealing to voters, the widespread sentiment against the current Lee government favors a DUP victory in the national assembly elections. The victory is unlikely to be a landslide, and a DUP majority in the parliament would be slim at best. So far, the DUP has yet to capitalize on public disappointment with the Lee government. Furthermore, the DUP's strong opposition to the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) and to the construction of a naval base on Jeju Island has weakened popular support for the party; both policies were initiated by the previous Roh government, the principal officials and supporters of which now lead the DUP. Thus, when DUP president Han Myung-sook, who served as prime minister in the Roh government, remarked that her party would revoke the KORUS FTA if it won a majority in parliament, she was accused of political irresponsibility and even criticized by DUP supporters. She later retracted her initial statement, saying she would pursue not a termination but a renegotiation of the agreement if the DUP won.

One plausible reason for the DUP's unsuccessful handling of foreign and national security policy issues, such as the KORUS FTA and the construction of the Jeju naval base, is its alignment with the UPP. While the latter has remained consistent in its position on these issues, the former has shifted more to the left as it attempts to make and maintain alliance with the progressives. Also, in this process, hardliners within the DUP have become stronger and moderate factions weaker.

Implications for U.S.-Korea Relations and the ROK Presidential Elections

One question that will influence the tone of the national assembly attitude toward U.S.-ROK relations will be whether the UPP succeeds in gaining over twenty seats in the national assembly. Doing so will empower the UPP to organize a caucus, appoint its members as committee chairmen, receive various government subsidies, and enjoy many other privileges. By gaining greater financial and institutional resources, the UPP will have more influence in the national assembly. And because this more liberal party is clear about its position on minjok (nation) questions and has an anti-American disposition, its influence, if it wins the right to organize a caucus, is likely to complicate U.S.-ROK relations.

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Elections and Voting

The national assembly elections will affect the intraparty dynamics between these candidates and factions.

The national assembly vote will also set the stage for the December presidential election. How well the Saenuri Party does will demonstrate party president Park Geun-hye's ability to garner public support and affect her intraparty leadership. Though Park will likely continue as the party's leading presidential candidate regardless of the election result, a crushing Saenuri defeat will require her to convince the party of her ability to win the presidential election.

Though former Roh administration chief of staff Moon Jae-in is currently the leading candidate for the DUP nomination, the liberal party's situation is more complicated; it has multiple factions that prefer a number of candidates. The national assembly elections will affect the intraparty dynamics between these candidates and factions, with a landslide victory sustaining a hardliner leadership and a narrow win or defeat potentially causing an internecine struggle.

Still, South Korean public disillusionment with politics as usual remains a wild card; this has been expressed through the popularity of a nonpolitician as a potential presidential candidate—IT entrepreneur and Seoul National University professor Ahn Chul-soo. Despite the popularity of Ahn's town hall meetings around the country criticizing South Korean politics, it remains to be seen whether Ahn will run, and, if so, how he will manage to secure an institutional base from which to conduct a campaign for the presidency without losing the popularity that derives from his status as a nonpolitician.

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